by Dan Illouz

A man from the minority Yazidi sect stands guard at Mount Sinjar (Reuters)

Many people were shocked when they first heard of the Islamic State (IS), a small terrorist group that took over large parts of Iraq and Syria and declared itself a new caliphate in June 2014. The rise of IS-inspired terrorist activity in France, Canada and Australia has only enhanced this shock.

However, those who heard the constant warnings coming from Israel about the dangers of the Middle East have anticipated such an event for a long time.

In this article, I want to look at the various lessons that the rise of IS can teach us about the Middle East. One can quickly discern that these are exactly the things Israel has been talking about for the past few decades, shattering many Western myths.

1. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not the central conflict in the Middle East.

For the past few decades, the Western world has acted as if the root of all problems in the Middle East is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If only we could solve this one problem, they thought, we could bring about peace in the Middle East.

The events of the past few years prove that the problems in the Middle East are much deeper than the one conflict between the Jewish state and the Arab world.

The struggle between Sunnis and Shi'ites far predates the struggle between the Arab world and Israel. It is specifically this struggle that is at the heart of the battle between IS and the government forces in Iraq. The struggle between secular and religious forces lies at the heart of many of the conflicts in the region, including the conflict between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian government, and the internal conflict in Syria. There is also an age-old battle with various groups in the region trying to gain some form of autonomy, or at least some equal rights: the Kurds, the Alawites, the Yazidis, the Druse and the Christians.

These historical conflicts, some dating back over 1,000 years, are much deeper than the Jewish-Arab one. These conflicts were silenced by strong dictatorships in the region that did not allow for any opposition. However, with the Arab Spring and the weakening of these dictatorships, these conflicts are now coming back to life.

In just the past few years, hundreds of thousands have died in these conflicts — many more deaths than resulted from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Let us make what is already clear even more blunt: The building of Jewish houses in the Jewish historical homeland of Judea and Samaria, in Israel, has absolutely nothing to do with these conflicts, and no peace deal between Palestinians and Jews could ever help solve them.

2. Territorial withdrawals strengthen terrorism.

For the past few decades, many analysts have claimed that territorial depth has stopped being an important factor in wars, which have become far more technological in nature. This meant that territorial withdrawals should not be feared, since technology could compensate for the loss of control over territory.

However, recent experience shows that there is no substitute for actual control over a territory.

The United States completed its withdrawal from Iraq on December 18, 2011.

By June 2014, IS had already taken over large parts of Iraq, and the Iraqi government was left defenseless. The vacuum left by the withdrawal of a Western army from a territory leads to chaos, which encourages extremist elements to take over. This is also what happened after Israel withdrew from Gaza in August 2005, with Hamas taking over in January 2006. When Western democracies leave behind a territory without proper preparation and stability, terrorists take over.

In the 2008 elections, the Obama administration ridiculed presidential candidate John McCain for claiming that US troops might have to stay in Iraq for over 100 years. McCain claimed that the troops had to stay "as long as it takes," even if it was in smaller numbers. He gave examples of other conflicts in which American troops stayed for decades as passive forces ensuring stability.

He said, back then: "If we had withdrawn six months ago, I can look you in the eye and tell you that al-Qaida would have said, 'We beat the United States of America.' If we'd gone along with Harry Reid and said the war is lost to al-Qaida, then we would be fighting that battle all over the Middle East."

Barack Obama won the presidential election, as the Iraq war was incredibly unpopular then. However, looking back, it is clear that McCain was right, and that Obama is the one who should have been ridiculed for his rush judgment and his lack of understanding of the region. As soon as America left Iraq, Islamists started gaining strength and slowly took over.

Yes, Obama's rush judgment was what led to the rush withdrawal of troops, to the strengthening of IS and to all the horrors that have now landed on our television screens: attempts at genocide, beheadings, mass graves and more.

On August 8, 2014, Obama, the greatest advocate of territorial withdrawal, announced that he had authorized an air strike in Iraq. Even the most non-interventionist president in recent history was forced to intervene in Iraq to deal with the chaos that had ensued from the withdrawal of American troops.

It is no surprise that Israel, too, nine years after the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, went back into Gaza in Operation Protective Edge, defending itself against rocket attacks from a vicious terrorist organization whose stated goal is to kill as many Israeli citizens as possible.

Territorial withdrawals are dangerous.

Those done without proper preparation lead to disasters. They strengthen extremist organizations that thrive in chaotic situations and give them an opportunity to take control.

3. Iran needs to be stopped.

As we see IS's violence, we must remember that there is little difference between Islamic State and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Both are led by radical Islam. Both want to apply Shari'a law in their territories and are huge human-rights violators. Both are also trying to expand — Islamic State through traditional expansion, Iran via proxies such as Hezbollah.

The only reason for the conflict between Iran and IS is that one is Shi'ite and the other is Sunni.

Allowing Iran a nuclear bomb is exactly like giving a nuclear bomb to IS. This is an existential threat not only for Israel, but for the whole world. It has to be stopped.

4. Israel must stand up to pressure.

As recent events have shown, experts from around the world who tend to pressure Israel with their utopian worldviews have been proven wrong.

It is specifically Israel that has been proven right, with its reticence to leave territory that is under its control, its insistence that Israel is not the root cause of the troubles in the Middle East, and its call for the international community to ensure that Iran never gets a nuclear weapon.

Instead of pressuring Israel, the world should start listening to Israel. Until then, Israel must stand up to international pressure.


Some of the comments that added useful information.


One big question is whether Iran would write off the large communities of Shiites who would be at great risk in a nuclear strike against Israel. The fact that they appear to be even considering the nuclear option should tell us how much they actually care about Palestinians, or for that matter, the whole area which would be rendered uninhabitable.

Ken - USA

The real problem with the Western Nations is that they believe you can talk an enemy into peace by monetary appeasement and free trade agreements. To the Islamics, in particular, they see this as a sign of weakness and that the West has no stomach for war. They then play the Western nations for monetary and military support but do nothing of what they want.

The oil held by the Islamics is also a big problem since the West needs it and thus the Islamics use this to get the West, especially the EU, to do what they want them to do. The EU caves into this blackmail while the US does not since it gets most of its oil from Canada and Mexico. Without the oil blackmail the EU would be much less anti-Israel. The EU still believes in appeasing an enemy even though they have evidence it does not work, example - Hitler's appeasement by Neville Chamberlain!

DaveM to Ken - USA

While I agree with much of what you write, I disagree with the first sentence. The real problem is that the West believes that the basis of a peace agreement is mutual self interest: when the costs of no agreement approach the benefits of an agreement, it can be accepted by both sides. That's what normal negotiations are about. But in the case of fundamentalist Islam, such rational considerations are trumped by religious convictions. That makes the Middle East different from other conflicts around the world, and the West in general still does not understand this.


The key point here is that Western diplomats and journalists understand nothing about the real Middle East. They have invented sand castles in their own minds about the Palestinian issue as a way of not having to think about the sordid reality of the region. The invented and sustained 18 artificial Arab states that are now all imploding. Israel, Turkey and Iran (and hopefully the Kurds) are the only peoples in this region capable of sustaining national, competently run and stable governments reflecting their societies. That is the dirty little secret of the Arab revolts now completing their fourth year. Meanwhile, Europe continues its century-long decline. At some point, the Israeli leadership will stop listening to the Europeans altogether. I look forward to that day.


The Pentagon is fully aware of the threat. It is the President who is in denial. I will repeat these two paragraphs just in case you missed them.

Matthew Kroenig in his book A Time To Attack :

Pentagon officials like to receive information in Power Point slides and the final slide in my presentation was a color-coded chart showing how the two outcomes under consideration ( a nuclear armed Iran or a military strike on Iran) would affect about a dozen key US national security interests. National objectives that improved in a particular scenario were colored green, those that were neutral were colored yellow, and increased threats to the national security of the country were depicted in various shades of orange and red, depending on their severity.

Two patterns stood out to everyone in the room. First there was very little green and a lot of orange and red on the slides. Second, the "nuclear-armed Iran side" of the chart was noticeably darker than the "military strike" side of the chart, meaning that the risks of the strike paled ( quite literally in this case) in comparison to the threats posed by a nuclear-armed Iran. Indeed at the end of the briefing, the senior-most official in the room looked me straight in the eye and said, "Well, if you are right, this is a no-brainer".

Dan Illouz is an attorney and a former legislative adviser to Knesset's coalition chairman; he previously served in a legal capacity at the Foreign Ministry. He is a graduate of McGill University Law School and Hebrew University's master's program in public policy. This article appeared January 1, 2015 in the Jerusalem Post and is archived at

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